Battling for the books

Print: Collectors, dealers and other book lovers pay a little extra to get first crack at the Smith College sale offerings.

March 31, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

It was 3:30 a.m. when Barry S. Alpert awoke in Silver Spring and began preparations for the difficult day ahead. He packed his car and then drove to Capitol Hill to pick up his assistant, Robert Herzog. Then he turned around and headed north again, reviewing strategy. They arrived by 7 a.m., with three hours to spare.

And for all that, Alpert was 18th in line when the doors opened at 10 a.m. at the Towson Armory, where the 43rd annual Smith College Book Sale returned yesterday after a one-year stint in Parkville.

The sale continues from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and from noon to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow. Admission is free -- except for the first hour yesterday, when a $5 fee was charged. Serious collectors and dealers, as well as a few diehard bibliophiles, are happy to pay this amount for first crack at the used books sold to raise money for scholarships.

"All the desirable books go in the first five to 15 minutes," said Thomas Young, a retiree who describes himself as interested in "just about everything" and has attended the sale for six years running.

Young, who collects only for his own pleasure, was a rarity among the early birds. Most of those who clustered in the armory's anteroom were collectors and dealers, who sell as much as they buy.

There was Chris Wood of Springfield, Va., who arrived first and instituted the number system, causing some old-timers to grumble. There was Charlie Maiorana of Red Sky Books in Washington, who specializes in art and song books. There was the Clark family of New York City -- Dondi, Karen and 5-year-old Caleb, described as a "fantastic picker" despite his inability to read.

For this trip, however, his parents had purchased a GameBoy and were urging Caleb to find a safe corner once the sale started.

"It's not a good place for children," his father said. "They see humanity at its worst."

"Caleb's kind of used to politeness and civility," his mother added. "And you don't see much of that at a book sale."

Yet those who gathered early were quiet and orderly, chatting among themselves like the old friends they almost are. The seasoned dealers know each other by face, if not by full name. "Where's Joel?" Wood wondered. "I don't know," Maiorana replied. "Where's the short guy?"

"Joel" and "the short guy" were not the only ones who had decided to sit out the Smith sale this year. One obvious problem was the cool, damp weather. But dealers also blamed the increasing influence of the Internet, which they say encourages sellers to price their wares too high.

Still, the Smith sale has a good reputation among book pros, if only for the sheer number of volumes, which ranges from 40,000 to 50,000. And, although experts examine donated items before the sale opens -- a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tales of the Jazz Age" was auctioned for $6,000 this year -- the Smith sale isn't too "picked," the serious collectors say.

"My view is that, among Smith alumnae, the pool is so good it's worth coming to," said Alpert, a retired university professor who now makes his living as a book scout.

The first few hours passed quickly. By 8 a.m., about 20 people were waiting, including Baltimore City Councilman John L. Cain, who planned to make a beeline for local books. "First Baltimore, then Maryland," said the Democrat from East Baltimore. But Cain also collects old cookbooks, preferably local ones from parishes and neighborhoods. He estimates he has at least 3,000 volumes in his personal library.

At 8:25 a.m., a volunteer began distributing maps, showing how the books would be arranged. Alpert divided the room in half, instructing Herzog to head north, toward art and history, while he took drama, poetry and literature.

Outside, the line continued to grow, stretching north along Washington Avenue, then turning east onto Chesapeake. As many as 400 people have paid to attend the first hour of the sale, and last year's sale saw 250 people cross the threshold in the first 10 minutes.

Baltimore County Historian John McGrain, who says he has attended every sale since it began in 1958, was about 50th in line. Over the years, he has managed to amass a complete set of Maryland Historical magazines from the 1940s and 1950s.

"It's the farthest up I've ever been," he said happily. "We'll go in with the first wave."

The first wave, Filene's Basement, the running of the bulls at Pamplona, the riot in "The Day of the Locust" -- the sale has a tradition of spawning such high-flown descriptions.

But the doors opened with little fanfare, just a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown by Joan Griffith, who has worked on the sale for 20 years.

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